Italia

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I took the night-trip into Tijuana because I wanted the experience of crossing the border, soaking in the culture, eating the food, and hearing the language.  No, not really.  I went because I was twenty and I could legally drink in Mexico.  That was all.  That, and the bar was complete with girls who blew whistles and poured tequila down your throat as well as an outdoor volleyball court complete with sand.  One of my male companions that night would have his glasses stolen by a stripper when the amount of money he tried to give her wasn’t enough.  On a positive note the tacos were two for one dollar and did their job soaking up the cheap mescal. Not long after this trip I would get a hold of my Canadian friend’s resident alien card and drink for the remaining four months of my twentieth year on American soil.  So suffice it to say my first trip out of the States wasn’t very life changing nor eye-opening.  And all I brought back was a giant ceramic donkey and a hangover.   Thankfully, it would not be my last trip beyond the US border.  The next time I would venture out I would have a slightly more sophisticated modus operandi.

Fast-forward four years.  I’m sitting in my European Geography class as a senior at San Jose State University.  This was my favorite class because my professor was kind and smart and he let my put my feet up on the chair next to me, eat my breakfast, and drink my Coca-Cola.  And our mid-term assignment was to read a travel book and write a book report on it.  Yeah.  So, I loved this class.  I soon found I had very little to contribute to discussions as everyone in this class had been somewhere or everywhere and I had been nowhere.  When we would talk about European affairs, either political, social, or environmental, everyone else had a story about their time spent in Ireland, Greece, Norway, or Poland.  Should I pipe in with my story about Tijuana?  Best not to.  It was somewhere mid-term (perhaps while writing that taxing book report) that I made a vow to myself that I would travel that summer.  I just wasn’t sure where.  I was working at a French restaurant at the time, and had taken four years of French, so that thought crossed my mind.  Plus the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and fromage.  I was pretty set on France until I got home one day and was excited to see that month’s Bon Appetit magazine waiting for me in my mailbox.  The cover was very simply a picture of a pasta dish with the words Rome Florence and Venice, all in bold.  I obviously wasn’t very firm in my decision to travel to France because my mind changed right then.  Which pretty much sums up my love for food when my plans to travel across the world can change on a dime, or a picture of pasta.  My new goal was to travel not for the geography but for the cuisine. I had also, up to that point, taken four classes in art history and knew it would be thrilling to see some of the classics in person.

I got to work that day and in a matter of minutes made plans with a co-worker and friend to visit Italy that July.  Making such decisions today is a bit more difficult.  Plane tickets were purchased within the week.  I bought travel books, read up on places to visit, things to eat, and where to stay.  Little did I know that all my preparations would matter very little.  The minute I set foot in downtown Rome, tasted my first unplanned gelato and took a right instead of a left, I knew I cared not at all about what I supposed to see.

I had never been anywhere for such a long period of time where I didn’t speak the language.  But it was quickly evident that mattered very little.  I communicated with smiles, nods, points, and an overuse of the word “grazie”.  And of course the language of food.  The people were kind and the more we ventured off the beaten path, the kinder they were.  And the better the food got.  I knew I was headed in the right direction when pepperoni and spaghetti with meatballs was nowhere to be found on a menu.  In Rome, I ate the best gnocchi of my life.  Homemade and topped with a meaty tomato-cream sauce and served to me while sitting in a small restorante void of toursits.  Dried, cured meats hung from the ceiling and giant wedges of cheese sat out on the counter. Though we unintentionally walked in not long before closing, the owners insisted we come in and sit (lots of smiling and pointing, again), brought us our orders and then sat in the back and ate a late lunch, themselves.  Table wine and big platters of food shared between them.  I’m pretty sure I had never been that happy before that moment.

Pizza, cheese, wine, mixed with heat and the smell of old buildings filled the next three weeks.  After Rome, we took the train to Florence, then to Venice, then Naples.  In Florence, there was a caprese salad with buffalo’s milk mozzerella, and the deepest, most reddish-purple tomatoes I have ever seen.  They actually tasted more colorful.  The food in Venice was delicious, too, but unfortunately more saturated with tourist spots.  I had to try a bit harder to find the treasures. But they were there! Here in the States, every table is automatically set with salt and pepper.  In Italy, it was olive oil and sometimes balsamic vinegar.  Bread came with the meal, not before.  It was meant to soak up sauce, not fill up on before your meal arrived.  It was also here that my love affair with sparkling water, or acqua frizzante, began.

I had no intention, originally, of visiting Naples but did so upon the instance of a friend who had spent a year in Italy during college.  She said it may not be the obvious choice but that the food would be the best.  My friend and I left Venice and boarded the train to Naples.  It was a long, beautiful journey down the length of the boot. But, eight hours later, we arrived after many games of cards and snack cart panini.  Naples was immediately not as striking as the other cities we had visited.  Many streets were lined with dumpsters and the air had a trash smell.  But I mean this in the most respectful way possible.  To this day, when I smell an outside garbage bin I become nostalgic.  It was, however, easier to find the good food.  The best food.  Naples is famous for being the birthplace of pizza and it’s everywhere.  And it’s the best anywhere.  Yes, even better then New York.  It has ruined me completely for pizza in the States.  The crust has a way of being crunchy and crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, which is quite a feat being that it is only a millimeter thick.

Our second day in Naples brought us to a restaurant that sat along the ocean.  Modest in

appearance and reasonable in price, I wasn’t expecting to have the best meal of my life there.  I ordered a seafood dish because, well, we had a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea and it seemed fitting.  Seafood pasta seemed a good bet.  The pasta in Italy is some of the best in the world, dry or fresh.  The charming waiter delivered the dish in a giant bowl.  The noodles swirled around generous amounts of mussels, clams, prawns, and chunks of fish filet.  The seafood was all cooked perfectly and the pasta was al dente.  But the sauce!  It was the sauce I will remember forever.  Mostly because there really wasn’t one.  It couldn’t have been more than seafood stock and olive oil with a touch of salt and pepper but the flavor was unmatched and it was the ideal viscosity, coating every noodle.  To this day I haven’t been able to reproduce it.  Maybe it’s better that way.

I was ready to return home after the long trip but I was also sorry to leave.  I think that’s the mark of a perfect getaway.   Being that my funds were limited and I didn’t have much room in my suitcase, I didn’t buy many souveniers.  But I took home a world of memories.  Worth far more than a ceramic donkey.  And I have since purchased the Bon Appetit again.  That one stays in plastic on my bookshelf. Grazie, Italy.

 

 

Dear Facebook Comment Section

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Dear Facebook comment section,

Thank you for reaffirming my fears about this great country I live in.  Before reading you I was only afraid that the majority of people I share my homeland with were angry, ignorant, and unnecessarily judgemental, but then y’all opened up your mouth and removed all doubt.  I even made a point to avoid all (mostly) un-biased political pages.  NPR, Time, Newsweek.  Instead I will follow only nature pages, and pet-lovers pages, and pages about food.  Here, I will be safe, in my cocoon of denial and like-thought.

Ah, here’s a post about National Parks.  I love National Parks.  That’s a pretty tree.  And it’s snowing, so serene. Oh no, here comes Ron from Milwaukee.  Ron’s profile picture is a bald eagle so he can’t be all bad, right?  Ron says, “Gee, looks pretty cold in that park, so much for the libtards and there* global warming”.  Oh no.  They say don’t feed the trolls, but it’s really difficult.  I’d like to provide Ron with links to scientific journals and discussions about global warming and it’s impact on the earth, along with links to a few community colleges in his area.  Or reprimand him on his use of the word libtard and point out it’s irony. Let it go, Em, it’s a battle in futility.

Okay, well here’s a post from one of my favorite pages, I Love Dogs.  It’s a woman holding a puppy and the caption reads, “Why We Consider Our Pets to be Our Children”.  Seems innocent enough.  I don’t have kids and I know I certainly think of Max as my baby.  I have found my people!  Oh no.  Here’s Melissa from Dayton, Ohio.  She says, “I think it’s so crazy when people who have dogs act like it’s the same thing as having an actual child.  It isn’t.  So get over yourself!!!”  Wow.  That seemed unnecessary Mel.  I mean, did you really think pet owners believe having a dog or cat to be the same thing as having an actual human?  I don’t want to speak for all pet owners but I’m aware that I needn’t be concerned with Max’s grades, his being bullied, or overhearing me use the F word and repeating it at the dog park.  And when the phone rings after ten at night, I’m not afraid that something has happened to him.  I’m also not worried about saving up for his college nor braces.  But he is my boy and I love him and, yes, pet owners will treat our pets like children, especially when they’re the only children we have.  I wanted to respond to Melissa and tell her what a horrible person she was, but I didn’t have to.  50+ pet owners took care of that for me.

Food pages!  My favorite.  What could possibly go wrong when folks are swapping recipes, taking pics of yummy things they’ve had for lunch, and waxing poetic on the beauty of a sandwich.  For example: here’s a post that starts off with a picture of a juicy burger topped with Cambozola cheese and a sweet tomato chutney.  Mmmm.  That looks so good.  If  I weren’t on a diet, I could eat five of those.  Jill from Boston says, “Yummy!”.   Zack from Pittsburgh tags a friend and says, “We are so coming here this weekend!”.  Uh oh.  Here comes Beverly from Miami to ruin my high.  “This is the reason why 70% of Americans are overweight”, she says.  As if America’s obesity epidemic can be pinned on a sandwich, this particular sandwich at that, and as if this were the proper forum to discuss it.  Next time Beverly is giving a talk on health and diet at Berkeley, I’ll check it out.  This comment is easy for me to ignore as it’s more of a silly statement than an accusation.  But then here comes Natalie from Arcata. Natalie is a vegan.  She also wants everyone else to be one, too.  She tells Jill, Zack, and me all about the cattle industry and the treatment of animals and about how  we take a bite of that burger, we are eating fear.  Really?  Can’t I just enjoy my burger porn?  Then people try and defend themselves by stating that they eat humanely-raised livestock, and this and that. To no avail.  She even compares eating bovine meat to eating all meat at one point.  “If you’ll eat cows, what stops you from eating your dog, then??” she asks when provoked by another commentator.  Most likely because his dog is starting UCLA in the fall.

*the use of “there” was intentional 😉

 

 

Mother’s Day

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When my mom was young she looked like a young Cher or Debra Winger circa “Terms of Endearment”.  She was single and young and I was her world.  We did everything together.  We took the camper to Yosemite, we went on dates with her boyfriends, we celebrated when she passed the CPA exam.  She took me the movies late at night with her best friend.  Afterwards we would go to the old Bob’s Big Boy and she would order me a root beer float.  I would drink until I passed out from exhaustion, sleeping on the big red pleather booth cushions.  I can remember her singing “You Are My Sunshine” to me.  She would tell me later that she left out most of the verses, they were too sad.  My mom worked long hours on the week days, but she made it up to me on the weekends.  We went to Monterrey so I could eat crab and play in the ocean.  We went to Castroville so we could share a serving of friend artichokes.  One year, our school put on a haunted house at Halloween.  They were looking for volunteers to help with the crafts.  My mom sat for hours meticulously cutting 3 inch pumpkins out of orange construction paper.  The pumpkins would eventually end up on the ground that night. I felt really bad about that.  If there was a bake sale, she baked.  If there was a kite day, she flew a kite.  If there was a school project, she made sure mine was the best.  I had the most books, the coolest bike, a Barbie corvette, and a Lite Brite.  But most of all, I had the best mom in the world.  Thank you for everything.